THE HORROR FILM AS AMERICAN FOLK-ART
Robert Anton Wilson
from the Journal of Human Relations, First Quarter 1971
Lon Chaney Jr. recently appeared on the Johnnie Carson TV show speaking in a hoarse and rasping voice. In answer to a question, he explained that his vocal cords had been permanently damaged, several years ago, when he was entertaining children at an orphanage; the children had asked him, over and over, to repeat the famous wolf-like growl which he used in his characterization of the lycanthrope, Lawrence Talbot, in a series of popular horror films of the early 1940s. The films were all produced, released and circulated before any of the children were born, but—as every TV-owner knows—they live on in the new medium of television, and, like the wolf-man himself, come back from their grave endlessly.
When Boris Karloff died, he had performed in every type of role, from light comedy to classical tragedy, on the stage and on TV as well as in films; but every obituary mentioned in the first paragraph that he was best known for his characterization of the Frankenstein monster in a film made in 1931. That film appeared on my television only two weeks ago, and I have no reason to believe it will not be back again before the year is over.
These stories illustrate what every theatre owner knows: Americans have an insatiable appetite for horrors, and a successful horror film will be revived more often than ‘any other kind of cinema entertainment. Now, while it is true that artists of high talent, such as Mr. Chaney and Mr. Karloff (and such great directors as James Whale, Todd Browning, Robert .Wise and Jacques Tournier) have graced some of these films with an artistry that is rare in Hollywood, the American movie is basically a commercial enterprise; these monster-epics are produced, not chiefly to express the creative imagination of the talented people who often contribute to them, but to move the audience in a way that will spell financial success at the box-office. In short, these films are manufactured as modern advertising is manufactured: with a cool and unsentimental eye on what is neurotic (and therefore exploitable) in the masses. Thus, they tell us a great deal about fellow countrymen—and, perhaps, about ourselves. Furthermore, if one takes a Jungian approach to depth psychology, one can assume that, as mirrors of the American collective unconscious, these entertainments contain parables of wisdom and healing as well as images of our pathologies and frustrations.
The dominant figure of the horror film, as nobody who has studied this field can doubt, is the “mad scientist.” This archetypal character has appeared in world literature since the mid-19th Century (and can be traced back, beyond that, to the evil sorcerer of early times); it is significant that he is the central character in. the first internationally-successful (and artistically respectable) horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, made in Germany in 1920. His most famous appearance, of course, is as Henry Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive, in Frankenstein itself; thereafter he appeared with monotonous regularity throughout the 1930s, usually portrayed by the Teutonic and humorless Lionel Atwill. Aside from Dr. Frankenstein, the mad scientist appeared most memorably in The Invisible Man, (1933) played by. Claude Rains and directed by James Whale, who had also directed Frankenstein. The Invisible Man, like Frankenstein, was so popular with the public that it gave birth to a series of increasingly mediocre sequel.
If the mad scientist is the dominant figure in American horror films, the dominant image is disaster: Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory destroyed and innocent victims dead on all sides; the Invisible Man wrecking trains and threatening to upset the stock market (demolishing capitalism itself at its nerve-center) but finally dying pitifully, a crazy man bleeding in the snow as the dogs close in on him; in later films, whole cities (and real cities, too: New York, Los Angeles, London, Tokyo) laid waste by the pre-historic monsters other mad scientists have foolishly revived. If these movies are telling us any one particular thing, it would appear to be that science is a profound menace to mankind and that our cities are vulnerable to total destruction virtually overnight. That we all know today that this is true might cause us to overlook the significant fact that this warning was implicit in films made ten years, fifteen years or even twenty years before Hiroshima. If we choose to say that these movies contain a seed of lumpen anti-intellectualism, we must add that they prophetically warned against the abuse of scientific knowledge at a time when the mind of the average rationalist contained no such intuition—when, in fact, it was believed by the “educated” classes that science contained no perils and promised only boons and benefits to mankind. Nevertheless, there existed, in inchoate and unconscious form, a far more sinister picture—the scientist as psychotic, standing amid the rubble of a disaster he had arrogantly created—and Hollywood learned early that masses of us would pay good money to spend a few hours in the dark dream-world of a theatre being frightened by that image.
This brings us to the basic question about such films: if the terrors were in our unconscious before they appeared on the screen, why do we pay to look at them? Why do we not “repress” and block them out? Why—as Aristotle asked long ago, of Greek tragedy—do we find entertainment in that which is not pleasing at all, but terrifying and pitiable? Aristotle’s answer was that we need periodic purgations of such emotions; psychoanalysts would accept the basic concept of purgation, adding only that we find an outlet for our masochism in identifying with the victims in these films and a simultaneous outlet for our sadism in identifying with the villains or monsters. More modern psychologists, less preoccupied with the morbid, would point out, perhaps, that there is a movement toward wholeness or healing in this kind of dark art; in Frederick Perk’ terminology, by confronting in symbolic form the sinister side of science, we are unconsciously seeking to complete a Gestalt – to take into consciousness that which has been pushed into the background by the scientism, humanism., optimism and progressivism of the official culture.
Thus, one can even find symbolic social criticism in these films. Bela Lugosi, in Halperin’s White Zombie, (1932), is an exploiter of labor: his plantation is staffed by half-human automatons (“zombies”) who finally rebel and destroy him. The great uncompleted Gestalt in the American mind–the realization that, sooner or later, the exploited turn on their exploiters, and, usually, do so in a violent manner—is here dragged into consciousness most hideously. Robert Armstrong, in Cooper’s King Kong (1933; like White Zombie, at the height of the Depression) is indistinguishable from the average Western film hero, as portrayed by John Wayne or Henry Fonda: he is brave, individualistic and has the typical American contempt for “weakness.” But he is also motivated entirely by gain (an element usually missing from Westerns) and, after he has successfully confronted and conquered the largest horde of monsters ever to appear in a single film—including a brontosaurus, a tyrannosaurus, a stegosaurus, a pterodactyl and a giant snake—the island on which all this occurs is virtually destroyed. The “natives” (as they are always called in such films) stand before their demolished huts looking, on a modern reviewing of this masterpiece, like survivors of the American invasion of Vietnam. At the climax, the biggest monster of all—the giant ape, Kong—is brought back to New York, and promptly runs amok, leaving large sections of the city in shambles. It is as if the big gorilla were acting out the SDS slogan, “Bring the war home;” King Kong was the first Weatherman. One can even find in the film an allegory on the process by which the imperialistic wars of the 19th Century (Armstrong’s invasion of Skull Island, to capture their natural “resources”—the monsters he hopes to exhibit for profit) gave birth to the world wars within the capitalist nations in the Twentieth Century (Kong on the loose in New .York). Once again, officially tabooed insights into the nature of out society are made palatable and admitted to consciousness by the dream-dark atmosphere of the movie theatre. That King Kong, like Dracula, also contains an element of unconscious homosexuality only shows that Freudian materials are among, but not all of, the repressed reality symbolically presented under the guise of “horror” in these movies.
The psychoanalysts are right, of course, in saying that we identify sadistically with the monsters as much as we identify masochistically with their victims. In this connection, the memorably monomaniacal exaltation of the Invisible Man—”The whole world is afraid of me!”—contained a warning about the American national character which few could understand in the early 1930s when the film was made, but which is now more generally understood as the “overkill” supply in the national arsenal steadily increases. Curiously enough, the very next line in the script of The Invisible Man was consciously intended to indicate the protagonist’s insanity, but now has anew meaning: “Even the moon is afraid of me!” The same tone of omnipotence and implied, Jehovah-like threat can be found in the public statements of theU.S. government whenever a new nuclear missile is put into production or another moon-shot is announced. Once again, the horror film was prophetic.
The reverse of the coin—the American desire to be loved, and a sense of misery that anyone should fear or hate us—is dramatized in the “wolf-man” films whose enormous popularity, we have seen, reached to the children of the present generation and caused the star, Lon Chaney Jr., to damage his vocal cords. The basic myth of these movies is a Kitsch version of the dogma of Original Sin: the hero, Lawrence Talbot, is, as portrayed by Chancy, a good man, a kind man, a conspicuously gentle and compassionate man—but, at certain tines of the month, he is supernaturally transformed into a half-wolf and driven to kill and devour innocent victims. This curse has fallen on him through no fault. of his own; he has been bitten by a werewolf himself. Like Lyndon Johnson in his public speeches, Chaney tells us again and again in these films that he only wants to be loved, he hates the necessity of killing (and would stop it if he could) but his compulsion is as great as the “commitment” which forced Johnson to continue the war in Vietnam. This typically American pathos (and bathos) is underscored by the fact that Talbot, although the heir of a noble English family, was raised in theUnited States, speaks and acts like an American, and could easily be the man who lives next door. The films also feature a bit of pop poetry that is repeated at least once in each of the four movies that make up the Talbot saga:
Even a man who is pure of heart
And says his prayers by night
Can become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the moon is full and bright
It is interesting to note the progressive resolutions of Talbot’s problem in relation to the historical events at the times the films were made. The Wolf Man was produced in 1941, after the beginning of World War II but beforeAmerica’s overt involvement. In this version, Talbot can be killed by any silver implement, and is, in fact, killed by a silver cane wielded by his own father. Of course, in 1940, many Americans knew (and others suspected) thatRoosevelt was maneuvering to get us into the war; in the figure of the destroying father who kills his son “for his own good,” one is reminded, of Kipling’s bitter:
If any ask, why we died
Tell them: because our fathers lied
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man (1943) came afterAmerica officially entered the war. Here, there is no mention of any “cure” for Talbot’s condition—except for some papers said to be in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, but quickly lost in the rather convoluted plot—and his murderous activities spread over several countries before he is temporarily stopped by being drowned.
In 1944, when the war was proving to last longer than the professional optimists in the Office of War Information had led the public to believe, the wolf-man was again resurrected—and this time, Dracula as well as the Frankenstein Monster were also revived to assist him in spreading terror, in House of Frankenstein. Significantly enough, in spite of the competition, the wolf-man holds the center of attention, and the myth has changed: now he can only be killed by a silver bullet fired by one who loves him. His quest for love and understanding is now redoubled, and, at the end, a gypsy girl who does love the poor tormented mass-murderer has the kindness to fire the silver bullet right into his heart.
Finally, in 1945, with the end of the war in sight, the wolf-man was brought back again, in House of Dracula. To the delight of all his fans, who had suffered with him for four long years while he sought a solution to his killing-compulsion, Talbot was not only cured for good this time; he managed to live through it, and even to win the girl he loved. The supernatural curse was not supernatural at all; there was merely a brain malfunction, which was cured by surgery! (Americans at that time were very optimistic about the plans for a United Nations Organization to prevent future wars.) Rationalism, at least temporarily, promised to triumph.
The next major cycle of horror films seems to reflect an attempt to digest Hiroshima—in the symbolic and distorted way typical of movies and dreams. Them (1954), The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Godzilla (1955), Giant Behemoth (1959), and about a score of others each dealt with the destruction (or threatened destruction) of a major, city by a monster unleashed or created by atomic radiation. Interestingly enough, the most artistically successful of this generally mediocre lot of films came from Japan—perhaps these were the most heart-felt and least ambiguous? Such grossly obvious allegories dominated the horror film from about the time of the demise of the wolf-man until the early 1960′s, but then a new, and especially interesting, trend appeared. The terror flick became simultaneously more explicit and more ambiguous. It became more explicit in bringing to the fore some of the Freudian elements that had previously been left unstated; it became more ambiguous in cutting its last umbilical connection to even the tattered shadow of rationalism and logic. Thus, where once every horror was “explained” (either by reference to the tradition of supernatural folk-lore or by some variety of pseudo-science, such as the creation of Frankenstein’s monster out of pre-existing parts snatched from graves and animated after assembly by a bolt of lightning), the new horror film might be said to have as its theme a remark made by the English biologist J.B.S. Haldane in his old age: “The universe may be, not only queerer than we think, but queerer than we can think.” Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), for instance, deals with an attack on a smallCalifornia town by seagulls, crows and other birds, who seem temporarily bent on killing every human being who lives there. A few characters attempt explanations of this departure from nature, but the plot develops in such a way that each new attack renders the last explanation no longer credible. At the end, the horror is as much a mystery as it was in the beginning. Meanwhile, however, the heroine’s previous history of promiscuity and the hero’s Oedipus Complex have been manipulated in such a way as to suggest that one or both of them are somehow connected with the reign of aviary terror; this non-explanation (that’s the only word for it) is not only scientifically unbelievable, as is true in the classic horror films of earlier decades, but it is also inconclusive and inchoate. The audience is left to exclaim, like Byron, “I wish he would explain his explanation.” Nevertheless, this non-explanation lingers in the mind longer than an explanation would, and seems somehow to link with another character’s remark that the attack of the birds is the beginning of the End of the World. In short, the people in Hitchcock’s small town find the sudden descent of violent death as hard to fathom as most have found the government’s rationale for its invasion ofVietnam, but hints suggest that the answer is to be found in depth psychology, in theology, or in some occult blend of the two.
Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) is even more sexually explicit: one character is a Lesbian, another has a classic Electra complex, and a third is a puritanical sadist whose cruelty is overtly linked to his sexual repression. What happens during the haunting, however, is never explained: the audience is directed to believe in one ghost, in two ghosts, in three ghosts, in no ghosts, in telepathic hypnotism creating the illusion of ghosts, or in some form of malignity animate in the matter of the house itself. Evil is—this film seems to join The Birds in saying—and man can only recognize that fact; he cannot explain it.
Here I would like to point to a related trend, which first appeared, joltingly, in a non-supernatural horror film: Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). I call this theme the Slaughter of the Innocents. Briefly, Psycho introduces us to a young lady, played by the popular light-comedy performer Janet Leigh, who we have every reason to believe is the heroine of the film. Audience identification is further heightened by two technical devices: (1) there are a large percentage of “subjective shots”—scenes photographed from Miss Leigh’s viewpoint with the actress herself theoretically behind the camera; and (2) “interior monolog” (the spoken thoughts of the character played by Miss Leigh) is employed frequently. Thus, while watching the film, we are Janet Leigh—and we have the sublime confidence that whatever horrors she is to confront, she will survive them all, and stand in the hero’s arms at the fade-out. (This, after all, is Hollywood.) Then, about one-third of the way through the movie, Janet Leigh is killed. The shock is double: not only has the firmest of all cliché’s been destroyed before our eyes, but we die a kind of epistemological death ourselves-as we seek, vainly, for another character to become the focus of audience-identification and represent “us” up there on the screen. Compare this with, say, James Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein: no matter how many times Henry Frankenstein and his wife were threatened by the monster, we always knew they would survive at the end, and they did. Hitchcock has pulled that rug out from under our feet forever. Furthermore, the implied message—that the good can die as well as the evil—was raised to a higher level of intensity in The Birds, where children are the most conspicuous victims. (James Whale, of course, included a scene in Frankenstein, in which a child is murdered by the monster; but the scene was censored from most prints when the film went into distribution back in 1931.) In The Haunting, not only is the heroine (the most pathetic character in the film) killed; she is the only one killed, and a rather obnoxious secondary character, who appeared to be killed earlier, turns up alive—to stand, in the fade-out, where we would expect the heroine to stand: beside the hero. Further-more, the irony and cruelty of this ending is high-lighted by the fact that, a few minutes earlier, in a scene placed and paced to suggest a climax, the heroine almost died but was saved at the last instant. Her death arrives, then, as an anti-climax—like the death of Cordelia in King Lear, and with the same evident meaning:
As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods:
They kill us for their sport.
The Slaughter of the Innocents escalates (to use an appropriate word) in The Dunwich Horror (1970), a mediocre adaptation of a fine short story, which has, however, one particularly telling scene: a farm family (typically American “salt of the earth”) are shown saying grace before dinner—and then the monster kills them all. In the old days,’ prayers and crucifixes could keep Dracula or the wolf-man at bay, but now, evidently, even Christianity has lost the war against the Powers of Evil. And the symbolic threat against the heroine in early horror films is no longer disguised as death: here it is explicitly rape, and she is not spared but suffers it. And Roman Polansky’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) is virtually a direct rebuttal of Dracula, featuring the same thematic characters: the murderous vampire and the benevolent scientist who fights him. Polansky outrageously explicates the Freudian interpretation of. the vampire legend, making his monster an overt homosexual; worse yet, the monster wins, and instead of extirpating the evil of vampirism, the-kindly scientist unwittingly spreads it over the whole world, where as it had previously existed only in the small unidentified Balkan country in which the film is set.
In Polansky’s next film, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the taboo against showing a pregnant woman in danger was smashed—the message is becoming clearer: pretty girls, innocent girls, children, farmers who pray before dinner, even the unborn, none are safe, for Evil is everywhere. More significantly, Evil in this film was hyper-respectable, just a little bit crazy, definitely stodgy and pompous, and, above all, middle-aged. Officially, the Evil were a band of witches; emblematically, they were the image of the Silent Majority as seen by the young and alienated. The pictorial, imagistic meaning of Rosemary’s Baby cannot be escaped: it says that the most respectable-looking middle-aged people you might see on the street will kill women and children, without even the excuse and the remorse of Lawrence Talbot, the wolf-man. The plot also contains a blasphemous parody on the birth of Jesus; and one scene shows the heroine reading the Time magazine article, “Is God Dead?”—the question all these recent horror films have been asking.
The wolf-man poem (“Even a man who is pure of heart. . .”) said subliminally to the audience: you, too, could be a mass-murderer; these recent films say, with increasing explicitness, that we can all be either murderers or victims, and that to look for reason or justice in the assignment of these roles is pointless. The history of the horror film, then, is the record of the American public’s uneasy groping toward an understanding of the repressed and unconscious forces which have madeAmericathe most feared nation in the world.
Talbot, it , should be mentioned, got bitten by the werewolf (and became a werewolf himself) only because he rushed bravely to the defense of an innocent victim of the beast’s attack. The message is Nietzsche’s: “If ye fight with a monster, beware lest ye become that monster.” His quest thereafter to find one who can love, understand and forgive him is the plight of official America (including the liberal, and conservative, intelligentsia); the Talbot theme—”I have -become Evil only because I fought Evil” it might be stated—lies behind all the rationalization for the growth, in this nation, of the most deadly military state in all human history. These movies were popular when a majority could believe that metaphysic, and could feel that Talbot was, truly “pure at heart” no matter how often he suffered the necessity of murdering. The recent horror films are less sentimental, more pessimistic and abruptly frank about the sexual desert at the heart of horror.
It is easy to see an analogy, visually, and emotionally, between Hitchcock’s birds descending on the California village (without any explanation that one can believe) and the American helicopters, or “whirlybirds,” dropping napalm on Vietnamese villages (without any explanation that an average citizen will care to believe.) The only film to state more clearly the real source of the sense of horror in our times was Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1962) which explicitly made the mad scientist, himself, (not any “monster” he rashly created) into the villain—and then identified him as a producer of nuclear weapons for the U.S. Government.
That the horror film actually contains Jungian archetypes can even be seriously considered. The sign of the werewolf, we are told in all the Talbot films, is the pentacle—a five-sided star with an inverse pentagon inside it. (This inverse pentagon has traditionally been used to invoke the Devil.) Quite as unconsciously as Hitler chose the reverse (bad luck) swastika as his symbol, the ironically-named U.S. Department of Defense has built its headquarters in a pentagon-shaped building; and a group of hippies, well versed in Occultism through drug-trips, gathered there in October, 1967 to pronounce a ritual exorcism: “Out, demons, out!” The secret symbols of the horror movies are, finally, becoming understood, at least by youth.
Man is said to be the only animal that lies, or can lie; but the possum—who lies with his whole body when he pretends to be dead—proves that definition to be inaccurate. It is more precise to say that man is the only animal who lies to himself A dog always knows who he is and what he wants, and so does every other animal from the hamster to the great blue whale, but if modern psychology has demonstrated one proposition beyond any further peradventure of doubt it is that most men, most of the time, know neither who they are nor what they want. They know only who society says they are and what their culture says they should want. Everything else—their own actual needs, wants, whims, desires and biological drives—is banished into a murky area variously known as the realm of the incomplete Gestalt, the Unconscious, or, in the poetic psychology of Carl Jung, the Shadow.
The archetype of this truncated man is that person whom militant blacks have named the Uncle Tom. He is the Negro who is so engrossed in “beating Whitey at his own game”—by playing the stereotyped role in which Whitey has cast him in that game—that he truly has forgotten, if he ever knew, who he is and what he wants. By no coincidence, radical American Indians have coined a term for an analogous figure in their culture—Uncle Tomahawk.
The bitterness and totally irrational fury of current American politics—there have been over one hundred explosions since January 1, 1970, plus the still continuing series of sit-ins, demonstrations, fire-bombings, occupations (of Alcatraz Island, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, etc.)—is a measure, perhaps, of the awakening that has occurred, quite suddenly, in recent years. A man jarred abruptly out of his sleep is apt to flail about a bit wildly and irresponsibly before he is fully returned to his senses. People who are awakening to a consciousness of true identity are similarly inclined to attack every moving target, because they have suddenly discovered the tragic truth behind Emerson’s famous remark that “society, everywhere, is in conspiracy against the manhood of each of its members.” They have learned that the basic human right, before and above all others, is the right to define yourself, and that society always, by its very nature, abrogates that right, even in allegedly free and ‘democratic states.
Socialization—the polite word for the brutal process by which a spontaneous, bright, lively, loving infant is tamed and frightened into becoming a cautious, calculating, dull, deadened, spiteful adult—is nothing else but dragooning people into the dominant games of a given culture and assigning them the roles they must play. Erich Fromm, a psychoanalyst bolder than most, refuses to euphemize the domestication process at all and bluntly calls it “robotization.”
The awakening from robotism into Identity seems to have a largely, chemical origin—pot was a significant factor in the black rebellion (as Eldridge Cleaver testifies), peyote in the Indian renaissance and both pot and LSD among young whites. The role of marathon sensitivity-training sessions and encounter-groups, of course, needs to be acknowledged also, as well as the increased feedback of self-images created, as McLuhan points out, by modern electronic media. Whatever the cause, the basic nature of all revolution today revolves around the right to define one’s self—the right to declare the Social Contract null and void by issuing one’s own Declaration of Independence. Right-wingers are more sensitive to nuance than liberals—or most radicals—when they warn that the ultimate consequence of this tendency can only be anarchy. Anyone who fully understands the transformation that is occurring must have some empathy with the conservative’s frightened desire to put the genie back in the bottle, re-seal Pandora’s box, and return to the comfortable condition of what the Buddha very accurately called sleep-walking.
But, also, for those who have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, as Karl Popper once noted, return to paradise is impossible; we must now live in the real world, leave dream and myth behind, and begin thinking about the hard, spikey problems of how individuals who have become truly individualized can relate constructively to each other. Just as racism is invisible to the racist and male chauvinism unnoticed by the male chauvinist, most of the insanity and brutality of traditional authoritarian society is still undetected by even the most radical, who show every inclination toward continuing organized psychoses and sadisms with the token difference of substituting one ruling elite for another. It is time for society, and society’s rebels, to “put aside childish things,” inSt. Paul’s phrase, and to see, not “through a glass darkly,” but with clarity. It is time, in short, to think like adults—like Darwin, Frazer, ‘Kropotkin, Tucker, Spooner and, yes, Marx at his best—and not like the great romantics, Bakunin, Shelley, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, etc. Romanticism—the plunge into the unconscious to solve the problems of the Id in its own dark realm—is the path where Mrs. Shelley found Frankenstein, and all his kith and kin.